The ambitious Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) was meant to ignite a sustainable home heating revolution, encouraging homeowners to ditch their traditional gas boilers in favour of low carbon alternatives like heat pumps and biomass systems, but it hasn’t turned out that way.

For those thinking about the future of their home heating systems, the government has been enthusiastically endorsing heat pumps. However, concerns have emerged about steep installation costs and compatibility issues with existing home infrastructure. 

Initial impact

The BUS has faced a lukewarm reception, with fewer applicants in July compared to the previous year. Heat pumps have found themselves caught up in political debates and public scepticism, leading to further homeowner confusion. Earlier this year the Lords Environment Committee expressed significant concerns over the performance of the scheme and the “disappointingly low” uptake of heat pump grants.

The government attempted to remedy this by launching a marketing campaign to promote the scheme in February this year. The campaign did see some initial, but short-lived, success, however reaching the target of 600,000 installations is not a realistic prospect on its current trajectory. With heat pumps being such a key part of the government’s promise to reach net-zero in the UK by 2050, it is clear more has to be done. 

Recent changes

In September, the government announced some significant changes to the scheme by pushing the gas boiler ban back from 2025 to 2035, with exemptions for certain homes, increasing heat pump grants by 50% to a maximum of £7,500, and the retention of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) with no outstanding insulation recommendations.

Another fundamental issue, often unaddressed in the BUS debate, is the matter of demand. According to a September 2023 survey of 1,000 householders by Wolseley, while nearly half of the population wants to switch to sustainable home heating, fewer than a third of homeowners are aware of heat pumps – despite them being the flagship technology promoted by the government. 

The same survey showed that even those who are aware of heat pumps could not confidently identify their advantages and disadvantages. Homeowners clearly lack awareness of the range of available technologies and their suitability for different property types. The survey also found that awareness of other technologies such as biomass and hybrid boilers stands at a concerningly low 16%. 

Rather than a narrow focus on heat pumps, a policy that can unintentionally exclude more accessible and affordable alternatives for the average consumer, the government needs to consider a broader range of options, as well as accessible schemes that would provide sufficient financial support to the average homeowner. 

The case for hybrids

This new set of measures, which some are calling a U-turn on net-zero, and others a necessary delay, has changed the sustainable home heating landscape. However, to truly address the complexities of transitioning to sustainable home heating, we need a more inclusive approach to technology. 

Hybrid heat pumps, for instance, offer a practical solution. They can be installed alongside existing gas boilers, providing a more cost effective and straightforward option, especially for homeowners making insulation improvements. 

In the Netherlands, where hybrid heat pumps have gained popularity, the market grew by an impressive 80% in the past year. Yet hybrids are not currently covered under the BUS, which is a significant missed opportunity to accelerate the decarbonisation of the UK’s home heating.

The public needs more information on the available options. A robust awareness campaign that involves a collaboration between government and the heating sector would help homeowners make informed decisions about their heating systems.

It’s essential to take the diversity of available technologies, the needs of homeowners, and the input of industry experts into account. With clarity on policies and their application, increased awareness, and alignment of resources, we can navigate the challenges and achieve a more sustainable future for home heating in the UK.